Russia, Ukraine war: Cases for and against expelling Russian Ambassador to New Zealand

As Vladimir Putin's forces attack a Ukrainian maternity hospital, strike residential apartment blocks with missiles and advance towards the capital of Kyiv, there are continued calls for New Zealand to send a strong message of condemnation by expelling the Russian Ambassador.

But as symbolically significant as that may be, the Government and some academics suggest there may be value in allowing Georgii Viktorovich Zuev to stay in his gated Russian embassy.

"It's kind of odd to use the term 'nuclear option' at the moment, because we've got a real nuclear option in play here, but it is kind of a nuclear option to expel the Ambassador," said Geoffrey Miller, an international analyst with Victoria University's Democracy Project.

Yuriy Gladun, the chairman of the northern region of the Ukrainian Association of NZ, told Newshub that the Russian Embassy parrots Putin's lines and engagement with it won't help.

The day after Putin ordered the invasion, about 100 Ukrainians here in New Zealand rallied outside the embassy on Wellington's Messines Rd. Their anger towards the Russian representation was clear; some stopped a staffer entering the complex, shouting for them to leave. 

But instead of spending their time and effort on pushing for the Ambassador to be considered 'persona non grata', Gladun said the Ukrainian community is focused on conversations with Ukrainian diplomats and speaking with the New Zealand Government about visas for their people. 

Among those calling for the Russian Ambassador to be expelled are the opposition parties.

National's Gerry Brownlee has said such a move is serious, but "it’s clear that President Putin has no intention of engaging constructively through diplomatic channels". David Seymour from ACT believes it should have been done weeks ago.

Asked this week about a possible expulsion, Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta said the Government needed to be careful.

"I think there are some international obligations that we need to be mindful of - the Vienna Convention, but also legislation in relation to the diplomatic corps. What we have done is called the Ambassador in, expressed our significant concern and distress about the actions Russia has taken."

The Russian Ambassador with then-Governor General Dame Patsy Reddy.
The Russian Ambassador with then-Governor General Dame Patsy Reddy. Photo credit: Governor General.

Holding onto diplomacy

In the months prior to the war beginning, when Russian troops massed on the Ukrainian border and Western world leaders threatened economic sanctions should that territorial line be crossed, New Zealand preached the value of diplomacy.

Speaking with AM just moments before Putin declared two eastern Ukrainian states independent, a prelude to the invasion days later, Mahuta repeatedly answered questions about Russia's threat by stressing diplomatic solutions.

"There is every opportunity for diplomatic efforts to continue to play its role to de-escalate the situation," the minister said. 

While, in hindsight, critics argue it's possible no amount of diplomacy would have ever stopped Putin given his brazen disregard for the world's warnings and his forces' continued onslaught despite condemnation and local resistance, diplomacy is core to New Zealand's foreign policy. 

It's because of that, and Aotearoa's support of multilateral institutions, that the Government has been reluctant to set up any regime giving it the power to unilaterally impose sanctions. 

That of course changed this week, but only with respect to the current conflict in Ukraine. New Zealand's taken other actions such as imposing travel bans and suspending bilateral consultations with Russian foreign ministry officials. 

Ukraine has been turned into a battlefield by Russia.
Ukraine has been turned into a battlefield by Russia. Photo credit: Reuters.

The desire to keep some diplomatic pathways open as well as to align ourselves with our global partners is also why the Russian Ambassador may not be told to leave the country.

Mahuta alluded to that on Wednesday.

"We called in the Ambassador here in New Zealand and we preserved our ability as a country to keep diplomatic channels open," she said in the House while debating the Russia Sanctions Bill.

The Government has continued to push the need for diplomacy to find a resolution.

Miller said expelling an Ambassador is a mostly symbolic step and while that can be important for a small country like New Zealand needing to signal its values to the world, he said one of our strengths has always been our ability to talk with different sides and make our case. 

"I think it would be more effective, to be honest, to keep the Ambassador here and to summon the Ambassador into MFAT (Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Trade) every day and tell the Ambassador of our displeasure and what New Zealand thinks of Russia's war on Ukraine."

He recognises Russia isn't listening to the West currently, but believes there could be a point in the future where it will be important to have Russian representation here to speak to. 

"If I were Ukrainian, I don't know how I would feel about the Russian Ambassador being here in New Zealand. I get the sentiment and it's just so much anger and, rightfully so, at what Russia is doing in this war. It is just so unjustified, unprovoked and it's just so devastating for Ukraine," he said.

"But I think we have to give diplomacy a chance, even if diplomacy looks like it's futile. That's when you need diplomacy more than ever and you just have to keep trying until it works."

Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta has condemned Russia.
Foreign Affairs Minister Nanaia Mahuta has condemned Russia. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Gladun, the Ukrainian Association chairman, said the local community here in New Zealand had different points of view. On one hand, the embassy reflects Putin's view, he said, but on the other, it's the direct line of communication between New Zealand and Russia. 

"For the last couple of days we have been discussing this issue inside the Ukrainian community, and we agreed that the better way of sorting diplomatic issues is establishing direct communication with the Ukrainian diplomacy, establishing here an Ambassador or Consul rather than fighting for expelling of the Russian one."

There is no Ukrainian Ambassador in New Zealand, but Kateryn Zelenko, the Ambassador in Singapore, oversees New Zealand as well. 

Gladun doesn't believe diplomacy with the Russians will help at this stage as it will "fall on deaf ears". 

"Not only New Zealand - the big players also cannot do much at this moment. The European Union and the United States and some other players, they cannot do much because this war, it's not logical," he said.

"It's not for economical gains, it's not for resources. It's simply a mad idea of a madman... how can you resolve it?"

Russia claims it has been threatened by Ukraine and needs to demilitarise and de-Nazify the country, something the Jewish community there has criticised. Ukrainian and Russian delegations have met on numerous occasions to find a solution, but there's yet to be a breakthrough.

The Russian Embassy in New Zealand frequently shares press conferences by Russian politicians on its Facebook page which include claims about Nazism in Ukraine.

Putin has ignored the world's warnings.
Putin has ignored the world's warnings. Photo credit: Reuters.

Speaking in Parliament on Wednesday, Brownlee, the National foreign affairs spokesperson, pushed for the Ambassador to be expelled as he believes it's extremely unlikely the Russian diplomats here in New Zealand will stray from Putin's line.

"The Russian regime speak, acts, and does on behalf of the people of the country, and if you look at the diplomats that are here, those people are direct servants of Vladimir Putin and his regime," he said

"For them to make any statement outside of total commitment to the actions that are currently being taken in the Ukraine is unthinkable. And so they should not be here. They should have been asked to remove themselves."

None of our major traditional friends have expelled the Russian Ambassadors in their country despite calls, such as in Canada, Ireland and the UK. In Ireland, the Government has said it would only do so in concert with its EU partners.

Miller says New Zealand alone expelling the Russian Ambassador would do little. He said it's best to work in solidarity with others, as we have in regards to economic sanctions. 

"New Zealander is a follower really in these things and is going to follow what other countries do on sanctions, it's going to follow what other countries do on diplomatic measures," said Miller.

"If Australia expelled the Russian Ambassador, I think it's quite possible that New Zealand will follow suit. But until that happens, I think don't think it will probably eventuate."

Newshub asked the Russian Embassy for a response to the calls for the Ambassador to be expelled. It responded by saying "accrediting or expelling of foreign ambassadors is a prerogative of a sovereign state". It says it remains open to dialogue with the New Zealand Government.

Gerry Brownlee has called the Ambassador to be expelled.
Gerry Brownlee has called the Ambassador to be expelled. Photo credit: Newshub.

Would the Russians strike back?

Another concern for the Government is potential tit-for-tat retaliation by the Russians if their representation was expelled from New Zealand. Essentially, they could kick ours out of Moscow.

"We also have people still in Russia who require our support or consular support; so we have to weigh all those things up as we take next steps," Mahuta said on Monday.

Robert Ayson, a professor of strategic studies at Victoria University, told Newshub expelling Zuev would be "towards the other end of the spectrum in comparison to the mild diplomatic steps taken so far".

"I think there are steps in the middle of that spectrum which can still express the Government's growing outrage at Russia's invasion and devastating use of force in Ukraine, while still leaving a good chance that at least some lines of communication are left open," he said.

"I expect the NZ government would want to retain some diplomatic representation in Russia to allow for consular support for New Zealanders and also to make New Zealand's representations there in Moscow."

He said likely retaliation "could make that much harder". 

Kiwi diplomats may be subject to tit-for-tat retaliation.
Kiwi diplomats may be subject to tit-for-tat retaliation. Photo credit: Getty Images.

The history books show when nations make another country's representatives persona non grata, it's not uncommon for the country at the receiving end of that action to do the same back.

You only have to look to the US in February, when it expelled the second most senior Russian diplomat in Washington "as a direct response to the unprovoked Russian expulsion" of a US diplomat. 

New Zealand has experience with this as well. 

In 2008, just a month after John Key's National Government came to power, our acting High Commissioner in Fiji was told she was being made persona non-grata as fallout of the Fijian coup continued. She was the second top Kiwi official to be expelled in a little over a year.  In response, the acting High Commissioner from Fiji in Wellington was told to leave. It happened all over again a year later.

But it's still a rare move for New Zealand to proactively expel an Ambassador. 

The few examples include Rob Muldoon's Government in 1980 ordering the Soviet Union Ambassador Vsevolod Sofinsky to go after it was alleged he delivered about $55,000 (in 2020 dollars) to a pro-Soviet New Zealand political party. Moscow retaliated by expelling our Ambassador there.

It's also recorded on the New Zealand History website that Muldoon expelled the Argentinian Ambassador in 1982 during the Falklands War.

Then-Prime Minister Robert Muldoon expelled a Soviet Ambassador.
Then-Prime Minister Robert Muldoon expelled a Soviet Ambassador. Photo credit: Getty Images.

Miller believes these examples are more reflective of Muldoon's "impulsive nature" than an attempt by the then-Prime Minister to force the respective countries to change their position on anything. 

"He didn't expel the Ambassador over the invasion of Afghanistan, which he perhaps could have done… It certainly didn't change the war in Afghanistan that we know lasted until 1989."

In 2004, then-Prime Minister Helen Clark cut off high-level contact with Israel delayed the approval of a new Israel Ambassador to New Zealand over the passport scandal. Miller expects she would have expelled the Ambassador if there has been one to kick out. 

In 2017, New Zealand expelled a US diplomatic staffer who was allegedly involved in an incident being investigated by police. The US Embassy would not waive his diplomatic immunity in that case.

A year later, a number of countries expelled undeclared Russian officials after the poisoning of former Russian spy Sergei Skripal. New Zealand at the time said it couldn't find any spies to expel.